Labour has accused David Cameron of attempting to rig the electoral system, after the government ruled it would adopt a new electoral register this year even though up to 1.9 million voters on the old list are still missing from it.
The government said it would adopt the individual register from December this year, overruling the advice of the Electoral Commission, which said it should not be implemented until December 2016.
There are currently 1.9 million more voters on the old household register – under which one person was responsible for registering everyone in the home – than the new individual register. The discrepancy has raised concerns that many of these people will lose the right to vote unless they re-register before elections in May 2016.
These include elections for the Scottish parliament, Welsh national assembly, the Northern Ireland assembly, the mayor of London and London assembly, and local elections in England.
The Electoral Commission said it expected the total of 1.9 million to reduce significantly after an annual canvass has been completed over the summer, but the scale of the potential problem will not be known until after that point.
Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, said the new registration system had gone well so far but the watchdog was disappointed in the decision to speed up its implementation.
She said: “Taking into account the data and evidence which is available to us at this point, and the scale and importance of the polls scheduled for next May, we still recommend that the end of transition should take place in December 2016 as set out in law.”
Announcing the decision, John Penrose, the minister for constitutional reform, said delaying the transition would “pose an unacceptable risk to the accuracy of the register” at a time when the government needs to use it to inform a review of parliamentary boundaries, which will be used for a shakeup of constituencies and to reduce the overall number of MPs.
Penrose said £3m would be made available to electoral registration officers in areas where at least 5% of the electorate have yet to switch to the new register.
“Retaining carry-forward electors risks having an unknown number of redundant entries on the registers, which would distort the results of the boundary review, increase the risk of electoral fraud, and potentially compromise the integrity of those elections,” he said.
“The government does not agree that we should be making a choice between completeness and accuracy, given the importance of both elements in delivering a fair, democratic system which commands the confidence and respect of voters.
“We need to be more ambitious. We can and should aim to achieve both, which is why the government believes it is crucial that the registers used to conduct the parliamentary boundary review and for next year’s elections are as complete and as accurate as they can possibly be.”
He said voters have now been contacted “at least nine times to encourage them to register individually”.
However, Lord Falconer, the shadow justice secretary, said it was “another example of how David Cameron’s government is intent on rigging the game in its favour”.
“The Tories are ignoring the Electoral Commission’s recommendation not to proceed in December 2015 – a decision which risks depriving millions of people of a vote as they fall off the electoral register,” he said. “This looks like a partisan decision intended to help the Tories push through a boundary review rigged in their favour.
“This makes a mockery of the government’s one nation claims and they should think again.”
Under the government’s reforms, voters will no longer be registered by the “head” of a household, and each person will have to sign up as an individual. A transitional process began before the general election in May.
Despite warnings from Labour and some experts before the election that millions could have dropped off the system, the Electoral Commission showed the overall number of people on the list went up by 400,000, or 1%, in the year before May 2015 to 46.8 million voters.
However, the commission’s analysis of the registers has also found that there were still 1.9 million entries on the old one that have not appeared on the new one.
The commission said that even after the canvass has taken place some electors will have been taken off the register and will not be able to vote in the elections scheduled for May 2016 unless they register again.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th July 2015 16.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010